Want To Make Better Stuff? Be A Better Person.

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wayne henderson

What?! Our flight is cancelled?!

Four of us sit stranded at the airpot in Charlotte, North Carolina. Our connecting flight to Tri-Cities airport in Tennessee grounded.

Two choices. Wait 7 hours to take the 1 hour flight. Or grab the only remaining car, a macho cream mini-van, and hump through the mountains to Abingdon, VA , a small hamlet at the crossroads of Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia. A place where the choice between bourbon or whiskey is a matter of what side of each state’s border you happen to be standing on. And you don’t want to choose wrong.

We drive.

Two days later, I find myself at the Heartwood Artisan Gateway, a beautiful facility where I stumble upon a video of a luthier or guitar-builder named Wayne Henderson. Wayne lives about an hour and a half away in Rugby, Va. I’d been researching building guitars for the last few years and become obsessed with the craft. But I’d never heard of Wayne before.

Watching a video of him in his workshop, I’m mesmerized. Have to know more. Turns out Wayne is a National Heritage Award recipient and bit of a legend in the guitar-building world.

Two reasons.

One, he’s a true master, been honing his craft as a player and a builder for more than four decades. He plays like a savant and builds some of the most sought after guitars in the world. Which leads to number two.

He once made Eric Clapton wait 10 years for a guitar. Not out of spite or ego, just because, well, he’s one guy, he still does most things by hand and the list of people who want guitars from him is 10 years long. Though, as I’d soon discover, that wait time is potentially hackable with persistence and a regular flow of fresh pies. Still, it’ll take years.

I had to know more. So I did some digging and discovered a book about Wayne, his life and deep devotion to guitars, music and craft…and the Clapton story. The book is called Clapton’s Guitar, by Allen St. John. And for anyone with a deep appreciation for humility-driven mastery, it’s a must-read.

Something at the end of the book really grabbed me. Something I’ve believed for a long time, but was written in a way that hit home.

The author, St. John, was talking with legendary guitar-builder and repairman, T.J. Thompson. He asked T.J. a question:

What is it that separates a magical guitar from a merely great one?

To which, T.J. responded:

It’s a combination of about 600 things….Number 1 is the state of mind of the person building the guitar.”

Allen comments:

In a single sentence, he had articulated the hypothesis I had gradually been creeping toward. An instrument is the sum total of not only the builder’s experience, but his experiences. You need to be a good man to build a good guitar.

Thompson adds:

Be a better person. You can’t keep your personality out of the work. It’s impossible…. If you’re rigid or you’re distorting reality, it goes into the guitar. And when you play it, it comes back out. It’s disturbing. I used to believe that but I never had any proof of it. But I’ve played enough handmade guitars and then later met the maker. Sure enough, it’s inseparable….

For a long time, I’ve felt the same way. About business, the craft side of entrepreneurship. About art. And the process of making anything for anyone.

Craft isn’t just about craft, it’s about essence.

Who you are. How you live your life. The way you engage with the world. It all flows through you and into what you create.

So, when you’re working to figure out how to “get to the next” level. How to transcend your current cap on what you put into the world and the impact it has. Look at skill.

But, maybe more importantly, look at you.



[Photo credit: cc: Peter Hedlund]

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29 responses

29 responses to “Want To Make Better Stuff? Be A Better Person.”

  1. Thanks Jonathan. Sharing on my Art as Worship Facebook page. I totally agree that all of our experiences and intent as an artist… or entrenpreneur… flow into our creations.

  2. Jonathan:

    I agree completely with your take (and Wayne’s) that what you put into your work is what comes forth. You can’t fake passion and commitment. When we put heart and soul into it, everything becomes a labor of love. As we are fully present, people know it, really GET it and they want more. It is far reaching and that’s how reputation and what Shawne Duperon calls “good gossip” gets spread. Thanks for sharing this article.

    Blissings and Blessings,


  3. Gail Mooney says:


    Great post. Great art and craft resonates when it comes from the heart and soul of the creator.

    Gail Mooney

  4. Sam Thatte says:

    This was a great way to start a new week. “You can’t keep your personality out of the work.” Simple but so profound! Thank you Johnathan. I will revisit this post when I need a reminder.
    Have a great week,

  5. I love this! I’ve always said to people that I’m a big believer in a founder’s energy infusing what they “found”. I really believe that in any business, work of art, or anything at all that the personality of the person who created the thing infuses every molecule of it. So, again, it always comes back to working on our stuff. Whether it’s raising a child, growing a business, or creating artwork, we’ve got to keep coming back to ourselves.

  6. Phil says:

    The term that get’s thrown around a lot is “authenticity”. I hate that it’s become jargony, but I think it’s essentially true. Eventually, your authentic self is what people see. It could be in crafting a guitar, or in your work.

    It’s hard to consistently be untrue to yourself. So if you’re selfish, people eventually see through it. Similarly, if you are kind it comes through as well.

    When I run a seminar on networking, one of the most important points I make is about “being useful” (like Thomas the Tank Engine). If you are, people will appreciate you. If you are just trying to extract value then you’ll strip mine your relationships and there’ll be nothing left. Usefulness is renewable.

  7. I LOVE this post, thank you.

    Humility driven mastery – awesome 🙂

  8. Stanley says:

    I know this will strike many as sappy, but your excellent article reminded me of “On Work” in Kahlil Gibran’s “The Prophet”:

    …Work is love made visible.

    And if you cannot work with love but only with distaste, it is better that you should leave your work and sit at the gate of the temple and take alms of those who work with joy.

    For if you bake bread with indifference, you bake a bitter bread that feeds but half man’s hunger.

    And if you grudge the crushing of the grapes, your grudge distils a poison in the wine.

    And if you sing though as angels, and love not the singing, you muffle man’s ears to the voices of the day and the voices of the night.

  9. Susan Kuhn says:

    It’s a small world. I “met” Wayne Henderson through a documentary my next door neighbor did on the Heritage Music Trail in Viginia. It started with Scottish immigrants bringing the banjo, and spread, person-to-person, black and white. I need to check back in and see how the DVD editing is coming along.

  10. Yes yes yes! It comes down to presence and energy. Loved this post 🙂

  11. Laura Brandes says:

    Loved the post. Beautiful story and filled with so much truth… thanks for sharing!

  12. Owen Marcus says:

    I often focus more on building a better… only to come back to the builder.

    It’s easier to work on the WHAT than the WHO. We are encouraged to buy or build the best. Where are we encouraged to not just be the best, but to enjoy the process of mastery?

    Much of the personal growth work done out there has a undercurrent of being better at all cost. Few people champion enjoying the journey.

    I don’t believe we can be truly a better man or woman without loving the journey. Yes, there are days when life is miserable. When we can cherish who we are and what we are doing – then we can impart that love in the music of every guitar we build.

  13. Melanie Harth says:

    Beauty! Reminds me of your conversation with Michael Port a while ago (Good Life Project TV), as the two of you talked about how entrepreneurship is ‘an opportunity for personal development.’ And how ‘a lot of our business problems are a personal problem in disguise.’

    Wonder what would happen if more of us put some energy and attention into our essence?

  14. Tom Bentley says:

    Jonathan, what I want to know is if you plied him (not pelted him) with pies to get your guitar’s schedule moved up? Or maybe with that bourbon you were talking about.

    Beautiful tale about tying your life’s work with your character. Work really shouldn’t be a separation of who we are from what we do, and when there isn’t that separation, it’s expressed in soulful stories like yours above.

    • Tom, have I introduced you to John “Business Lessons from Rock” O’Leary?

      I’ve done some web work for him as a favor (read: “sucking up so when his book becomes a best seller he rewards me) and he sent an email saying he was sending me a gift.

      I immediately hoped it was pie. It wasn’t, of course, it was a great book, but now we refer to volunteer work as “in trade for pie.” It seems to be the best translation I’ve seen for the word “lagniappe.”

  15. Wayne Henderson has been on my radar for years, partly because Doc Watson played with him down at the mercantile every chance he got, and partly because I read the Eric Clapton story a long time ago and it heightened my respect for both men.

    I have boiled the essence of my services and my choice of clients to a single thing: is there joy and contentment in this? If not, I don’t do it, won’t work with them, walk away from it.

    It would probably be voted the worst business plan in history, but since I’d vote myself one of the most contented people in history, I’m okay with that.

  16. “Craft isn’t just about craft, it’s about essence.” Sublime! I really liked this blog post. It reminds me about something I’ve believed since I was really young. And when you think like this, it’s okay to work on your craft in a small pond or in a big one, because essence is what matters most.

  17. Dale Yuzuki says:

    My first thought was the quote from Goethe:

    Before you can do something you must first be something.

  18. Lynn says:

    Great post, am going to read it to my boys and save to share for youth career building discussions, not to mention the importance of discoveries along the way. Awesome.

  19. Michael says:

    Great piece. I feel the same way about the art of doing so many things in life. Here’s a seeming foolish one I’ve bumped into lately–mechanical keyboards. So many of us spend our whole day typing but we pay little attention to feel and responsiveness of a tool we touch all day long.

    Mechanical keyboards are noisy, less esthetically pleasing but oh so wonderful to feel under your fingers.

    The artists making great keyboards are from German (Das), Japan (Filco), and Canada (Matias). There’s so much to a great keyboard (different switch feel, etc), but in a world of beige box boring computers, there are some artists out there creating wonderful products. Here’s hoping you treat yourself to one soon. Makes me want to be a better man (at least a better typist and one who’ll write more).

  20. Stirling says:

    Brilliant post. What you put in you get out!! Happiness, anger, bitterness, joy – it all lives in what you do.

  21. Jan Schochet says:

    So glad you found Wayne Henderson. (I didn’t know you were into playing guitar). Yep, he’s been a National Heritage Award winner from years back. I knew him from my days in undergraduate Folklore program in Chapel Hill (NC) where met met tons of musicians and music makers, and have been in awe of his work for years. People who have his instruments are quite lucky. Hope you can get one if you want it.

    (If you ever want to meet some more similarly amazingly “in love with what they do” craftspersons and musicians in NC, get in touch–can’t do a lot with a Master’s in Folkore–I feel like Bill Nye the Science Guy on public radio who says: I have a master’s degree in science!!–but I can show you a good time in the Carolinas meeting people with similar work ethics, standards, quality and industriousness)

    Thanks so much for sharing this. You’ve inspired me to dig out my (non-Henderson) guitar 🙂 Oh, and you experienced way better visuals for having driven your way to Wayne’s than flying from Charlotte.

  22. Kurt Eyrich says:

    Thanks Jonathan for this sharing. I know that my work will improve , if I become a better person. That will be my goal moving forward.

  23. Jodie says:

    Love this post. Such a positive message that I believe whole heartedly. Thanks for sharing

  24. jeroen says:

    Thank you for sharing this story. It is the exact illustration of what I mean with “Being at Work” or Humanity at Work (which is the translation of my business name: ‘Zijn Werkt! in Dutch): leveraging your being into your doing (and vice versa) to become whole. I believe this enables better setting direction and decision making, delivering quality. It stimulates productivity and engagement.

    All my best wishes for you today!

  25. […] Another gem from Jonathan Fields: Want to Make Better Stuff? Be a Better Person […]

  26. […] Our essence shows through in our work.  Want to Make Better Stuff?  Be a Better Person. […]

  27. Clark says:

    I couldn’t agree more with the message here. Of course, being a better person takes a conscious effort. And bad habits are hard to correct. But it’s well worth it!

  28. Leanne says:

    Oh my goodness, you went to Heartwood! I would have been thrilled to run into you there. Hopefully I would not have been too flabbergasted to say hello 🙂 I adore that place, both as a lover of all things handmade, and as an artisan. The people of ‘Round the Mountain and Heartwood have been good to me, and a wonderful resource for the local artisan community. If you were looking at the glass case of instruments, and noticed the banner hanging next to it of owls playing bluegrass, you’ve seen my work.

    I love your work Jonathan, but this post about a persons attitude showing in their work really hit home for me. I believe that our inner selves can be felt in our work, and by seeing how our work affects others, we can learn something about ourselves. I know when I’m tapping into the better part of myself while I’m working, when I feel joy in the process.

    Thank you for so generously sharing your insight with us. If you’re ever in the neighborhood again, I’d love to buy you lunch at Heartwood!